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December 2006
 
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The Cruise of the Talking Fish, by W. E. Bowman (1957)

BRITISH author W. E. Bowman published two eccentric spoofs of nonfiction adventure. The Ascent of Rum Doodle (1956) is a stiff-upper-lip mountaineering epic whose deeply incompetent team assails the unconquered 40,0001/2-foot Himalayan peak of the title. Setbacks abound, like the ghastly realization "We had climbed the wrong mountain."

Now that party's leader, Binder, seeks new glory in a voyage that echoes The Kon-Tiki Expedition. "I name this raft Talking Fish.… Heaven help all who sail on her."

The five-man crew's scientific goal is to trace the elusive talking fish of the Pacific. Underwater recordings hint at their language, whose words all sound like "blum-blum." The team's naturalist has already trained a talking frog. His star oyster can distinguish 109 words, but, alas, "The vocal chords of the oyster were rudimentary." Talking fish would be his breakthrough.

To produce a best-selling travel book, one must suffer. Iron rations consist of sawdust and putty. Crewmen eagerly examine themselves for signs of emaciation. One, stuck between timbers and permanently half-immersed, refuses to be released. On a sawdust diet, he begins to grow bark.

Surrealism increases as the crew's pet cats eat radioactive flying fish and go into temporal overdrive. They breed. Their kittens evolve oyster-opening tools, menacing the sapient mollusc. The kittens breed. Exponential growth soon produces untold thousands of mutant cats.

This population bomb deserves a footnote in sf references, between Heinlein's flat cats in The Rolling Stones (1952) and David Gerrold's Star Trek tribbles (1967). Meanwhile, Binder's men remain flummoxed by the intractable philosophical problem of the International Date Line….

—David Langford

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